Have you ever been to a place where everyone smiles at you, or stops for a chat. No, I hadn't either until this week when I visited the small city of Canterbury in England. It is an amazingly happy and friendly place. Although I have lived in the UK all my life I had never been there before. I had heard of it of course because Canterbury Cathedral is the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the man who recently conducted the marriage service of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known to the world as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
So why is the Mother Church in a relatively small, out-of-the-way place close to the East coast of England and only 40 miles across the sea from Calais in France instead of in London. Well it really has to do with King Aethelberht I, king of Kent, whose was married to Bertha, daughter of a French king. Bertha was a Christian, so when Augustine, later St Augustine of Canterbury, and another 99 monks arrived in the city in 597, exhausted from their long and arduous journey from Rome, Bertha insisted that Aethelberht offer them bed and board until they recovered sufficiently to continue their journey to London. At the behest of Pope Gregory 1, their task in London was to reintroduce christianity to England. The monks, however, didn't find the prospect of another dangerous journey across country very enticing so they stayed in Canterbury instead... and stayed, and stayed...for a thousand years, until King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and made himself Head of the Church of England in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Canterbury has been occupied since pre-Roman times but the city proper was established by the Roman Emperor Claudius in 43 CE. The remains of his Roman city is buried beneath the modern day buildings and the many beautiful green spaces surrounding the centre. Some of the old Roman walls are still standing and there are Roman roads still in use. Watling Street is the most famous. Today the city is a living, breathing history from its beginnings to the building of the first monastery and church by Augustine and his monks, to the murder of Thomas Becket by supporters of Henry II, to the dissolution of the monasteries. There is even a very modern moment of history. The Cathedral's Chapter House is where the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Mitterand of France and their Foreign secretaries agreed and signed the Channel Tunnel fixed link treaty in 1986. An agreement that would eventually result in the first land link between Britain and the European continent for 8,000 years!
A quick search on the Internet will give you 2,000 years of history as well as beautiful pictures of the cathedral, the many historic buildings and the quaint streets. You will also see the lovely River Stour, the parks and river walk. From the Internet you will learn far more than I can tell you in a blog, so let me go back to the beginning. The friendliness of Canterbury.
I don't know whether it is left over from being a place of sanctuary and reverence for so long, or whether it is because it receives so many visitors from all over the world every year, all year, that it is used to playing host. (Over 7 Million visitors last year!) What I do know is that it is one of the most welcoming places I have ever visited. From the taxi driver (now a local but originally from Mesopotamia) who told me it was one of the safest places he has ever lived, to the various local people who sat beside us in cafes and restaurants, to the shop assistants and their customers, everyone wanted to talk.
I was asked my opinion by people in dress shops and shoe shops, I was regaled with history by the volunteers at the Cathedral, I was welcomed by waiters and shop assistants, and by ticket sellers and by people just walking past. I had mussels and frites served by a French waiter (don't forget Calais is such a close neighbour that many of the shops have notices in French as well as English) that was so redolent of a holiday spent in France I could almost imagine I was there. Another lunch, in an English restaurant, was equally as good, and in both cases the conversation with the locals at neighbouring tables was so interesting and friendly that I could have stayed all day.
I suppose I might have just struck lucky. After all it was sunny and warm and before the tourist season proper, so less busy than it will be in July and August when the quaint medieval streets will become impassable, so everyone I met was relaxed and happy. I prefer, however, to think it was more than that. That it truly is a happy place where neighbour looks out for neighbour and everyone welcomes visitors in the spirit of the 100 monks whose arrival more than 1500 years ago opened the heart of an English King.
For the true history of England past, Canterbury is a good place to start.
I enjoy history and my book Remembering Rose is a history of sorts, where the heroine travels back in time to her family's past. Although it is only about one family it offers a picture of how swiftly times change and how none of us can know even our closest ancestors however hard we look. The looking is the point though, whether it's family, a village, a town, a city, a country, or the whole world. History teaches us a lot about ourselves and about the people around us. It really does repeat itself too. One final anecdote about Canterbury proves this.
At one point in their history the monks of Canterbury, having rebuilt the cathedral after a fire, had no money left to build themselves a monastery, so they did what any hopeful business person does today, they crowd-funded!! They approached all the wealthy families in the land with an offer of earthly and heavenly glory if they would seed their start-up fund, and guess what...the monastery was built. And on the arched ceiling there are the countless coats of arms of all the wealthy families who donated. They may have been pious monks but the entrepreneurial spirt was strong and very successful!!
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